THE SPECIAL EDUCATOR IN A LEARNING CENTER
Managing a Learning Center and Supporting the Students on Your Campus
By: Dr. Christine Powell
The role of a special educator in supporting students with special education needs on K-12 school campuses takes different forms. Programs and services for students depend on many factors and take into account the requirements of the federal Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). While a child’s Special Education Team determines a student’s educational program, one important consideration is meeting the students’ needs in the ‘least restrictive environment’ or the LRE. The LRE refers to the educational program a student follows, making sure they are in the general education setting with their peers to the maximum extent appropriate. One model that supports both the inclusion of students with special education needs in general education and provides targeted intervention outside the classroom is the Learning Center model.
Not a New Model, but May Have A New Name
Also known as a Resource Room or Learning Lab, a Learning Center is a designated classroom where special educators provide multi-leveled instructional support per students Individual Education Plans (IEP’s). Students come to the Learning Center at designated times throughout the school day to receive research-based interventions. The activities and interventions used by Special Educators provide targeted support to address a student’s IEP goals, so each student’s program is specialized. The following are 9 suggestions for managing a Learning Center and supporting students on your campus.
Design the Learning Space for Student Success
Be mindful of student needs when considering the layout of the room. Many students respond favorably to inviting environments with flexible seating and age-appropriate visuals. Creating several areas to accommodate both small group instruction and independent student work are the basics in defining the space. You will want to consider where to position desktop computers, iPads, and laptops. A small part of the space needs to be free of visual distractions for students that have a difficult time focusing. Additionally, if space allows, consider a reading area as well as a designated workspace for students taking a break (more about that later).
2. Get and Stay Organized
Organization is key to managing a schedule in a Learning Center. One solution is to create individual binders for each student that remain in a central location in the classroom. After each student signs into the Learning Center at the start of each visit, they collect their binders for the day’s activities. In each binder is a printed copy of the student’s IEP goals for a quick reference guide and notations made by the teachers/paraprofessionals regarding progress towards goals. As students work through lessons in the Learning Center their binders will contain artifacts of work, anecdotal information, and data on learning progress. The binders can be easily taken to meetings with general education teachers or provide documentation of work a student has accomplished. Another organization tip is to share an online calendar between school staff to make scheduling IEP meetings a coordinated effort.
3. Prepare and Anticipate Student Needs
As important as creating a comfortable and conducive space for learning, it is also equally important to have the necessary supplies. From sharpened pencils, highlighters, paper, and dry erase markers, and there are a few not so common items that should also be in the classroom:
*Headphones: For students who have a sensory aversion or need a quiet space
*Independent whiteboards: Cut to 11×17 inches for students to record answers on and easily erase (Green Tip!)
*Colored pencils and markers: Allow students to check over their papers with colored pencils. It is a strategy to encourage students to check their work
*Student Calculators: Again, an approach to teach self-check
*Grade Level reading books: An excellent way to get a book into the hands of a reluctant reader is to introduce it, provide details of a compelling storyline, then ask if they would like to look at it
*Index Cards: Used for keeping students’ eyes focused on a single line in a book or decorated as a bookmark; cards can also be made and used to study vocabulary, terms, or dates. Also, check out online study cards.
*Concentration Screens: Made from cutting packing boxes in half, study screens act as dividers and surround a student on three sides.
*Fidget items should include stress balls and putty for students with ADHD, as well as sensory items for students with autism.
4. Be a Team Player
Realize your seamless schedule for students coming to the Learning Center may be disrupted from time to time due to both expected and unexpected circumstances. Special class activities, student absences, substitute teachers, or a host of issues may impact the time a student comes to the Learning Center. Remain flexible and work with the teacher to make up the missed time during the week to stay in compliance with the IEP minutes. You are part of a team, and remaining adaptable and collegial will go a long way. Also, provide at least 3-4 weeks’ notice to general education teachers for meetings. This time allows them to collect information and work samples. Also, allow 3-4 weeks’ meeting notice to parents, and follow up with the appropriate service providers to address any specific concerns before the meeting.
5. Create a Student Friendly Environment
Clearly label your materials and spaces in the Learning Centers and make sure they are easily accessible and well-stocked with the supplies necessary for students to work independently. For activities, make sure that the goals and directions are communicated in student-friendly language so that students can derive the maximum benefit from their usage. Create a storage system such that students know where they can access what they need to complete assignments.
6. Differentiate the Learning Center Activities
Include a variety of activities to engage different types of learners. Avoid providing only paper and pencil tasks. Students should have opportunities to draw, match, cut, glue, figure, listen, fasten, select, compare, classify, outline, assemble, rearrange, etc. Be sure to allow for student choice among the activities offered. Allow students to practice self-direction, responsibility, and accountability for their work at the Learning Center. Periodically add new activities to maintain student interest.
Additionally, stay abreast of research-based interventions. As the Special Education teacher you are responsible for keeping abreast of best practices in the field of education that best meet the needs of your students.
Have high interest activities on hand
7. Plan for Learning and Breaks
Assist students in establishing a routine while in the Learning Center. For students that may have a hard time remembering directions, list the procedures for getting ready in the Learning Center near the classroom door. They can include 1) Sign In 2) Get activity folders 3) Preview lesson for the day 4) Gather essential materials 4) Prepare to begin. Include both visuals directions with graphics and written instructions. You can also use a check-off sheet for students that need a structured approach to completing tasks.
If students have been diligently working and an agreed number of problems have been completed, a brain break may be in order.
As mentioned in number 1, create a designated workspace for students to take a break by incorporating ‘Brain Games’ and ‘Mind Puzzles.’ This break allows students to step away from a learning task- and participate in a different, often, more relaxed skill building activity. Include age-appropriate word searches, Sudoku, connect the dots, and riddles, to name a few options. Although students are taking a break from direct instruction, the activities help students work and refine other other skills.
8. Utilize Technology
Often students like working with technology. Technology helps to increase a student’s independence in a skill set and allows for more personalized learning. A student can move through a program at a speed conducive to their rate of learning, and gamify learning increases student engagement. Additionally, student performance serves as formative assessment data, which can be analyzed to make next step teaching or remediation decisions.
9. Evaluate and Revise
Understand that a Learning Center is dynamic and may need to be changed or reimagined as student needs change. Reconfiguration is not always the case but small improvements may be in order. Still, Special Educators will need to understand that reflecting on what is and is not working in the Learning Center is best practice. Evaluating what may work better is an iterative process. Use student self-evaluations as well as your observations to determine the success of the Learning Center. Make changes based on the data you gather as students use the center.
Although the above list of suggestions is not exhaustive, it provides a framework of 9 important considerations for designing and managing a Learning Center. The importance of staying organized and open to change is indicative of the flexibility a Special Educator will need to run a Learning Center within a broader school environment. The other key points mentioned have highlighted the often overlooked areas requiring purposeful planning and attention. By taking into consideration the above suggestions, Special Educators will be better able to create, manage, and maintain a learning environment that meets the needs of the students it serves.